Beethoven Variations: Poems on a Life


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From the author of the bestselling Darwin: A Life in Poems, Ruth Padel’s new collection follows in the footsteps of one of the world’s greatest composers, Beethoven, and investigates what his life and music might mean to us today

Two hundred and fifty years since his birth, Ruth Padel searches for one of the most creative artists who ever lived: in his music, letters, journals, Conversation Books he used when deaf, and cities where he worked. Tracing Beethoven’s life through illuminating moments, placing around the poems ghost-quotes from contemporary letters, she adds poems on personal moments where his music has touched her life, to create a mirror history which speaks to the way Beethoven affects us all. You don’t need to know about classical music to get the poems: this is not only the life of a genius but a way of talking about how you turn suffering into art.

Beethoven was the archetypal genius, one of the most creative artists who ever lived. Two hundred and fifty years since his birth, Ruth Padel searches for him in his music, letters, journals, Conversation Books he used when deaf, and the cities where he worked – Bonn where he was born, and his adopted city Vienna.

Her poems tell a heartrending story of creativity overcoming trauma: the drunk father beating music into a weeping four-year-old, the brilliant teenage pianist, his hopeless love for beautiful pupils, agony over his deafness. The man we meet is jokey, violent, lonely, desperate to be loved, with a sweetness to him that keeps friends loyal despite the rudeness and rows. He throws eggs at the housekeeper, roughs up his nephew so the boy’s hernia pops out, adores nature, makes coffee with exactly sixty beans, loves humanity, is passionately democratic, feels expressiveness in music is more important than getting the notes right, and always ends his most heart-breaking work on a note of hope.

The sequence is also a personal quest, springing from a childhood playing music at home and Ruth’s collaboration with the Endellion String Quartet. We see Ruth playing quartets in Soviet-controlled Prague, travel with her to Beethoven’s birthplace in Bonn, his adopted city Vienna, Silesia where he had a row with his greatest patron, Poland where she kisses the manuscript of his late quartets.

You don’t need to know about classical music to get the poems, and Ruth has added a few personal poems which create a mirror history, speaking to the way Beethoven affects us all. The book is not only the life of a genius but a way of talking about how you turn suffering into art.

In Darwin, A Life in Poems, loved by thousands of readers who never normally tangle with poetry, she invented her own genre of biography-through-poems. In Beethoven Variations, she places around her poems ghost-quotes from contemporary letters and memoirs, and gives us in a prose Coda a condensed narrative of his life with moving extra details: bizarre 19th-century treatments for deafness, near-suicide attempts, worry about the cost of blankets, and how jazz improvising changes the brain. Throughout the book, as hopes of personal happiness recede, we see him reading Hindu mystics, battling through the courts to adopt his nephew; and after his ‘last shot at love,’ the avant-garde experiment, pain and tragic resolution of his final years and the late quartets.